Monday, November 16, 1998

Chess champ ‘checks’ cash before move

Anatoly Karpov is king of the board and business


Chess champs like to talk big numbers. Preferably with six zeros and divisible by eight — just like a chess board. When world champion Anatoly Karpov says “check,” he's just as likely talking about Yankee greenbacks as he is about chess. Of course, genius has its rewards. Karpov earned $1.4 million (U.S.) for successfully defending his FIDE World Chess Championship in Lausanne last January.

As he sips his wine and watches a splendid mid-autumn sunset over the St. Lawrence River, Karpov, 47, is waist deep in goose down pillows strewn amid the opulence of a white Bösendorfer Grand piano and a world-class collection of ivory and post-impresssionist art. He is nonchalant.Blue striped suit, black loafers, no tie. Accustomed to material comforts, he seemingly pays little attention to those of the downtown Montreal apartment where he is a guest. He seems more intrigued by his doting hosts — a successful Montreal businessman and his elegant wife. They talk politics and finance mixed in with a tasty Hungarian bouillabaisse, home-made herring, salad and tomato sauce pasta.

Ever the keen student, Karpov notes his host's stock tips. He promises to reciprocate with chess tips the next time he is in town. What greater honour than to have the Master personally illustrate his favorite opening known as the Caro-Kann.

Karpov, who will catch an early Sunday evening flight home to Moscow in four hours, washes down his meal with a few swigs of Pouilly Foissé 1975. He looks every inch the businessman — in Montreal to promote a possible match between himself and Susan Polgar, the women's world chess champion.

Not that Polgar, a 28-year-old Hungarian grandmaster who lives in New York City, has a chance of winning. She's ranked 80th among the world's top men. But a Battle of the Sexes - even on a chess board — makes for great headlines.

If watching cerebral, Yin-and-Yang chess doesn't supplant your daily dose of Viagra, Karpov's agent, Shiloh Quinn, has a few more shots of adrenalin in his magic bag. How about former tennis star Billy Jean King — who beat Bobby Riggs in the first Battle of the Sexes in 1973 — as arbiter for the eight games of speed chess? If that doesn't juice you, how about the sight of enigmatic former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, who lives in exile in Hungary, acting as commentator for the games?

Mayor Pierre Bourque caught the fever when he met for 20 minutes with Quinn and Karpov a few days earlier in his office. The matches could be played next month or early in the New Year in the tower of the Olympic Stadium and televised live on the big screens inside the stadium. Thousands of school children would be in the stands, watching the screens and analysing each player's move on donated computers.

Millions of spectators, including students around the world, would watch the matches live on the internet. Lots of potential sponsorships and massive media exposure for the participants, the game of chess and the City of Montreal. All the mayor has to do is come up with seed money of $300,000 (U.S.) as a site sponsor.

The first $300,000 (U.S.) in commercial revenue is reimbursed to the site sponsor, which is also paid 10 percent of total revenues.

Las Vegas and other North American cities are also strong contenders for the match because everyone knows that corporate sponsors spend big bucks to promote high-profile chess games.

It's why IBM invested millions to build the ultimate “terminator” — Deep Blue, better known as an RS/6000 SP-based computer designed to play chess at the grandmaster level.

Deep Blue can examine 200,000,000 chess positions per second and search to depths of 14 levels before making a move.

It didn't take many nanoseconds or much sweat on May 11, 1997, when it thrashed Garry Kasparov — arguably the world's best chess player — in Game 6 to take the match 3.5 to 2.5.

Karpov still hasn't gotten over Kasparov's disappointing showing — a match described in Newsweek as “the brain's last stand.” The two adversaries go back a long way. Between 1984 and 1991, they played five matches. Kasparov won three, Karpov won one and there was a draw. After 144 games, the score stands 72.5 to 71.5 in Kasparov's favor.

In 1993, Kasparov was stripped of his world title for refusing to play a championship match under FIDE rules. Karpov replaced Kasparov as world champion by defeating Jan Timman in the FIDE championship match the same year. He has held the title since, but has not played Kasparov.

Karpov believes Kasparov could have beaten Deep Blue, but he panicked. “Kasparov played like an amateur,” Karpov says. “He resigned in Game 2 when he had perpetual check. He's stronger than Deep Blue, but he was under psychological pressure.”

At heart, Karpov is a showman, looking for the big match to catch the public fantasy. He says Kasparov has been ducking a match with him for the last two years.

“Kasparov is an expert in the theory of chess openings,” Karpov says. “That's the weaker part of my game. But when I get out of the opening phase in an equal position with him, I play a better positional game.” Karpov, who was barely out of diapers when he started playing chess at the age of 4, has the distinction of being the first millionaire to make his fortune playing chess.

He's written over 50 books on chess, including a children's introduction to the game for Disney which is being translated into 22 languages. He plays seven or eight professional tournaments a year and travels to a different country every month, playing up to 25 amateurs simultaneously in exhibitions.

Novag, a Hong Kong company which makes chess-playing computers, paid him $1 million (U.S.) to endorse its products.

He stashes his earnings in a U.S. currency account in a bank in Moscow, where he lives in a 4,000-square-foot penthouse with his second wife, Natalya, a state historian who specializes in Russian art. He has a 19-year-old son from a first marriage.

They live the good life. He's an avid stamp enthusiast, with one of the largest collections of Belgian stamps in the world. Its estimated value is in the millions.

He swims and plays tennis 1 1/2 hours a day to prepare for big matches. In between, he studies his World Chess Encyclopedia — five volumes of 360 pages each, with “small letters.”

What has he learned from chess?

“Logic, strategy and patience — the same qualities you need to succeed in business.”


Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.